Thomas J Parlette
“The Light has Come”
Matthew 2: 1-12, Isaiah 60: 1-6
Once upon a time, there was a man who found himself in a small southern town while passing through on his way to business meeting. It was the Christmas season and this little town had the charm of a Hallmark movie – decorations, lights, festive holiday displays all over town.
One of the downtown churches had a lovely Nativity display out in front of the church. This business man was admiring it, when he noticed that the wise men in the display all had firemen helmets on. He thought that was rather odd – why firemen helmets? He thought maybe it was a special tribute to local firefighters, or maybe it was a theological statement of some kind. He puzzled about this as he stopped in to a local convenience store.
As he paid for his bottle of water and a snickers bar, he asked the lady behind the counter, “Do you know why the wise men in the nativity display next door are wearing firemen’s helmets/”
The lady behind the counters took a moment to size the man up, and with a look of mild annoyance and a roll of her eyes, she said, “Boy, you Yankees never read your Bibles do you?”
The man was a little offended. “I read my Bible, in fact I’m a regular church goer, I think I know my Bible pretty well.”
With that, the lady reached under the counter and pulled out her tattered copy of the Bible. She flipped open to Matthew, chapter 2 and jabbed her finger at a verse. “See, it says right here, “The three wise men came from afar.”(1)
On this Sunday of Epiphany, we welcome the wise men – not from a fire, but from a far-away land, somewhere in the East. The Bible doesn’t actually say there were three of them, in fact, ancient sources outside the biblical texts set the number of visitors at 2, 4 or even 12. But ever since 1857, when the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was composed, that number 3 has been set in our minds. There were 3 gifts, so it made sense to have 3 separate gift givers.
The wise men were actually “magi”, something akin to astronomers, fortune-tellers or a magician of sorts. They were probably from Persia and practiced the dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism and their specialty was interpreting dreams. In their studies of astrological events, they believed that God was up to something – they had seen evidence of new King being born, but they had no idea where to look for him. They are given a sign in the form of a new star in the sky. The magi follow the star and it brings them to Bethlehem.
These wise men are outsiders to the promises and stories of Israel, but God found a way to include them as well. Without dropping his usual footnote, “this was to fulfill…”, Matthew is reminding us of a prophetic text from Isaiah, our Old Testament text for today: “Arise, shine, for your light has come… the young camels from Midian and Ephah, all those from Sheba will come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And here they are. As Isaiah announced, “The nations shall come to you light.” The glory of the Lord, depicted as a Light, attracts people of other races beyond Israel. This Light of God will shine for all the world, Jew and Gentile alike. This symbol of light is what we celebrate during the season of Epiphany. The light of Christ has dawned for the world. Christ is our guide, our strength, the One who fills our life with meaning.
Professor Harold DeWolf, in his book The Religious Revolt Against Reason, tells of an experience he had as a young man. He went swimming at midnight one night with a friend in the Atlantic Ocean at Massachusetts Bay. He said the water was full of phosphorescent light. Every dip of his hand in the water produced something like a “circle of flashing gems and every breaker looked like a cascade of fireworks.” To ride the waves, they went out some distance from the shore. Then turning toward land DeWolf was gripped by a strange fear. The lights from the shore were no longer visible. So he looked up to the sky to get his bearings. But the sky was like the water – full of the spectacular confusion of the northern lights. “No star was visible. Then panic overtook me, for in all that glittering display there was no fixed reality. I could not tell the way to shore. I started back with a helpless terror engulfing me.” Professor DeWolf learned that, with no fixed star to guide him, it was almost impossible to chart out a course.(2)
But thank God we have a star to follow. It is the same star that guided the magi long ago. It is the light of Christ. Christ, who is a dependable guide, whose love never fails.
Scott Coltrain notes that “if you look in the dictionary, the first definition for “light” is something that makes vision possible.”(3) In other words, light makes it possible for us to see. Without light, we are hopelessly blind – blind to our surroundings, blind to our situations and circumstances, blind even to ourselves. Light makes it possible for us to see clearly – to see things as they really are. Before Christ, most of the world was blind. Christ, the Light of the world we celebrate during Epiphany, made it possible for us to have a glimpse of the Glory of God.
In the early 1960’s, the Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis was lecturing to the Oxford Socratic Club – more of a philosophy club than a religious club. Lewis defended Christianity by saying, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”(4)
Christ helps us to see the world in a new light, one that reveals that the people around us are not enemies or opponents. They are human beings made in the image and likeness of God. The light of Christ gives us strategies for navigating challenges, such as forgiving instead of punishing, and working for the common good instead of our narrow self-interest. Jesus invites us to see ourselves not as members of a particular family or community or nation, but as citizens of the glorious kingdom of God.
During Epiphany we celebrate the light that comes into the world to guide us and let us see the glory of God, just as it did for the magi from the East as Matthew tells us. We then turn to Isaiah, and in his words we get the “now what.” Now that the Light has come, what do we do – now what? As Isaiah put it, now is the time to rise, and shine, for your light has come, the glory of God has risen upon you.”
Hope is restored – the Light has come.
In 1998, Harvard’s senior class gathered in Memorial Church to hear the minister offer words of solace and encouragement as they left “Harvard Yard” to take their places in the world. The unvarnished truth that morning came from the late Rev Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime Professor of Christian Morals and minister of the Memorial Church and author of several popular book on the Bible.
Gomes took no prisoners that day. He began: “You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren’t ready to go. The President is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women and, (here he paused and spoke each word slowly for emphasis) you know just- how-dumb-you-really-are.” The senior class cheered in agreement.
“And worse than that,” he continued, “the world – and your parents in particular – are going to expect that you will be among the brightest and best. But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time. By noontime today, you will be out of here. By tomorrow you will be history. By Saturday, you will be toast. That’s a fact – no exceptions, no extensions.”
“Nevertheless, there is reason to hope,” Gomes promised. “The future is God’s gift to you. God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical. Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid.”(5)
I think we could add Isaiah words here… “Arise, Shine, for your light has come.”
As we gather around the table at the start of a new calendar year, let us rejoice that the light has come. There is reason to hope. Let us arise and Shine.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. HomileticsOnline, retrieved 12/12/18.
2. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p7.
3. Ibid… p7.
4. HomileticsOnline, retrieved 12/12/18.